Understanding how cancers evolve
About Charles Swanton
Professor Charles Swanton and his team at our London Research Institute are investigating how cancers change over time and come back after treatment, focusing in particular on lung cancer. The results of his work could revolutionise treatment in the future.
As a cancer doctor, one of the hardest parts of Professor Charles Swanton’s job is telling patients and their families that their treatment has stopped working. So his research aims to understand why this happens and how to predict and stop it.
In 2012 his team made a breakthrough. By analysing kidney tumours, they discovered that different genes were switched on in different areas of the tumour. After analysing hundreds of genes, they eventually came to a startling conclusion: even within the same tumour – no two parts were alike.
Scientists call this ‘intratumoural heterogeneity’ and it goes a long way towards explaining how cancer can behave. The idea suggests that in cancers where intratumoural heterogeneity exists, not all parts of the tumour will respond in the same way to a drug. Some areas are killed off but others could be untouched – causing relapse and delivering a devastating blow to the patient.
Professor Swanton’s next step is to translate these findings into real benefits for patients and he’s set his sights on lung cancer – a disease that claims around 1.4 million lives worldwide. Together with our scientists up and down the UK, he’s launched TracerX – an ambitious project that could revolutionise the way the disease is treated.
TracerX (which stands for Tracking Cancer Evolution through Therapy (Rx)) seeks to understand tumour heterogeneity in non-small cell lung cancer, the most common form of lung cancer. It will show scientists how tumours change over time and in response to treatment, and could also reveal new targets for tomorrow’s drugs.
Ultimately, knowing how lung tumours evolve will help doctors stay ahead of the game – predicting which treatment or combination of treatments are most likely to work and whether drug resistance could become a problem. For lung cancer – a disease for which survival rates have barely moved in decades – this could be the beginning of a much-needed renaissance.